The wasted potential of Death Note’s women

By: Kennedy December 13, 20230 Comments
manga cover art of Misa

Spoilers for Death Note; the manga, the anime, the 2015 TV drama, the musical, and the 2017 Netflix movie.

In my opinion, Amane Misa from Death Note is without question one of the most wronged characters in the history of anime/manga.

Misa was never seen by her one and greatest love, series protagonist Light, as anything even resembling an equal at all—instead, she finds herself repeatedly as the butt of jokes and a ditzy contrast to make him seem much smarter. In the end, Misa became a mass murderer for Light, and didn’t even have the one thing she wanted—his love—to show for it. Light constantly insults Misa, and even cheats on her toward the end of the series. Throughout the series, Misa was profoundly wronged by the other characters, but even so, this isn’t quite what I mean. When I say, “Misa is one of the most wronged characters in the history of anime/manga,” I mean that Misa was wronged by Death Note author Ohba Tsugumi’s writing.

In the hands of a writer who isn’t so brazenly disinterested in writing them, the women of Death Note—Misa, especially—easily have the potential to be the most interesting characters in the deeply iconic series. But as it stands, they’ve been massively shortchanged by writing that presents plenty of fascinating story elements for them, but that never get explored. Good thing we have the stage musical and 2015 TV drama.

Despite supposedly being one of its main characters, the Death Note manga and anime seem less than invested in Misa’s story—even when that story sounds really interesting. Throughout the series, Ohba leaves a breadcrumb trail to Misa’s past: all before the events of Death Note proper, her parents were murdered, and the subsequent legal dealings were taking a long time to resolve. After a while, people started believing that the murderer was falsely accused. But Kira either saw through or didn’t know about this, and killed the alleged murderer all the same, thereby priming Misa to become an ardent Kira worshiper. Not terribly long after, however, her own life was put in danger. A stalker threatened to kill her, and would’ve done it if not for a shinigami’s interference—a gesture that took his own life.

Setting aside how much potential a Fate/Zero-esque, Misa-centric Death Note prequel could have, this is an encapsulation of how completely and utterly disinterested Ohba is in writing women. Ultimately, despite the intrigue in Misa’s backstory, it ends up neglected because Ohba doesn’t seem inclined to write any women outside of the lens of romantic side plots, much less intentionally giving them interiority and complex emotions. Misa is the foremost example of this because she’s the closest thing Death Note has to a leading lady, but she’s far from alone. Despite their potential to be interesting characters, none of the central women of Death Note seem to have any motivation (and often, even interests) outside of falling in love and acting to further that love.

mid-shot of a smiling Misa

For example, Rem is in love with Misa, and seems to exist only to protect her from Light. Ultimately, this love is instead exploited by Light, who uses this as a tool to kill both L and Rem in one fell swoop. Outside of her love for Misa and desire to protect her, Rem seemingly has no goals whatsoever, which is a perplexing writing decision. Examining Rem and Misa’s relationship feels like such an obvious thing to do—to strengthen both their characters, and to add new depth and intrigue to the story—that the fact that the series doesn’t pick this low hanging fruit comes off as deliberate. And by avoiding these conversations in their entirety, it also means that Ohba has—perhaps also deliberately—swerved out of the way of addressing the queerness of it all.

Other female characters don’t fare much better. Halle Lidner is a double agent whose motivations are never fully expanded upon, despite, again, having the potential to be deeply interesting: she’s a woman in a male-dominated field, trying to catch Kira in a country that no longer has any desire to stop him. Instead, her personal narrative hinges on how it’s implied she loves Mello. Likewise, Takada Kiyomi, Light’s college girlfriend-turned-Kira-spokeswoman, also basically only exists in her relation to Light. In what might be the only scene in Death Note where two human women actually have a fully fledged conversation amongst themselves, Takada invites Misa to dinner where—to quote Halle (in the anime’s dub)—”They just talked about Light Yagami. If you read between the lines, they were arguing over which one was his lover.” 

This all comes in spite of the fact that Light loves neither of them, and is so plainly terrible to them both. This scene is something of a microcosm of what the series ends up doing with Kiyomi: once she learns that Light is Kira, her love for him becomes her only trait. This is a massive waste of storytelling potential: the glimpse her character could have given us into the workings of creating a propaganda machine against the murder case could have provided some intrigue and depth to the second act of Death Note. Rather than any of that, however, her first and only role is Love Interest.

Naomi Misora is the closest Ohba gets to a more realized woman, but her life is cut so short that we don’t get a chance to see her with any motivations outside of vengeance for her fiance, Raye Penbar—the misogynistic FBI agent tailing Light. This lack of depth (and certainly lack of screentime) for the otherwise capable Naomi is all the more puzzling, as during her brief livelihood we see a glimpse of potential story material dropped at the audience’s feet only to collect dust before vanishing all together: a struggle about whether or not she wants to fully leave the FBI to become a mother, as Raye is seemingly pushing her to do despite her hesitation on the matter. 

Misa and Takada sitting across a table from each other

To be clear, there’s nothing inherently wrong with a character’s defining feature being their love, even if (perplexingly) romance isn’t a key part of the series. Nor am I saying that you should feel bad if you like any of the women of Death Note, despite Ohba’s efforts to make them as dislikeable as possible (in fact, I love my camp queen Misa). What I am saying is that in a series that’s full of complex men, it reeks of casual misogyny when every woman is written using the same blueprint, just with a slightly different coat of paint each time.

Making things all the more frustrating is how the foundations for unique story/character beats involving the women are there, but despite the wealth of opportunities he has to give his women even a semblance of depth or humanity, Ohba takes none of them. Not only does this make the women more boring, but it can also bring down certain traits of other characters as well—the most obvious example being that it feels less like so many women fall for Light because he’s just that charismatic and manipulative, and more like they fall for him because that’s all Ohba’s women know how to do.

Death Note is without question the series where this habit of Ohba’s is most visible, but it’s far from the only example. The central-most women of Bakuman exist only to be less driven, and to fall in love or be fallen in love with. Against all odds, Platinum End—which is almost unanimously considered to be the weakest of Ohba and Obata’s three major collaborations—is the closest Ohba has ever gotten to breaking this lovestruck mold through Yuri Temari. Even so, Ohba can’t seem to resist making up for that by constantly highlighting that she’s not as selfless and ambitious as the men, and by making her—to quote ANN’s Nicholas Dupree—”a shallow influencer character you’d see in a Ben Garrison comic.” There’s also the wildly homophobic (and wildly pointless and out-of-place) rant she goes on in the manga to consider. 

Ohba’s comfort zone in terms of character writing definitely seems to be smart, usually over-prepared men who are schemers, strategists, and/or puppet masters of some sort; the type of characters who he can use as a proxy to directly manipulate both the story and other characters, thereby allowing him more flexibility. If he can be said to have a comfort zone when it comes to writing women, it’s women who are less smart than his protagonists, are easily triumphed over or manipulated (usually—if not exclusively—by way of love), and that he can write out of the story as soon as possible. His works being targeted primarily toward boys/men isn’t a proper excuse for the reductive way he writes women; a work doesn’t have to be targeted toward women to have well written women (to say nothing of the fact that plenty of women have read his works as well).

a girl scowls at offscreen dialogue. subtitle: for shonen manga, we only need the kind of girl boys idealize!"
From Season 1, Episode 16 of Bakuman. This could plausibly be Ohba inserting his excuse for why he puts so little effort into writing women.

The frustration of Ohba’s creative limitations are all the more annoying when you realize that in the hands of a writer with more enthusiasm to write female characters, the women of Death Note easily have the makings of being some of the most engaging characters in the series. To prove this, one need not look any further than Death Note’s exceptional wealth of adaptations.

When translated into other mediums, Death Note is often condensed to the point where Naomi and Kiyomi either aren’t present whatsoever, or are more akin to cameos than a substantial presence. However, something of a partial exception can be made for the Death Note side story Death Note: Another Note – The Los Angeles BB Murder Cases, which is a prequel story about the case that Naomi worked on with L. This prequel isn’t written by Ohba but NISIOISIN (most famous for the Monogatari series), although it’s more focused on Beyond Birthday (the murderer), the puzzles, and the murders themselves than Naomi and/or L as characters. Still, it does allow her the spotlight.

While not appearing in every adaptation of Death Note, Rem is at least usually present, albeit whilst being little more than a fly on the wall. The only major outlier is Rem’s portrayal in the stage musical, which devotes a number of songs to dissecting Misa and Rem’s relationship, especially from Rem’s otherwise extremely overlooked perspective. The stage musical is the only version where you see her developing and describing her love for Misa, thereby letting it feel more organic, as opposed to the tacked on, convenient tool that it can otherwise come off as. Thanks to this much needed dimension, Rem isn’t just at her most realized in the Death Note stage musical, but she’s also arguably the most (or at least, one of the most) endearing characters in it.

While Misa is the only woman who reliably shows up in every Death Note adaptation, she’s also the character who, overall, has the most variations across them. Without a doubt the most different version of Misa appears in the most different version of Death Note: the 2017 Netflix adaptation (henceforth referred to as “Netflix Note.”) For the blessed innocents among you who don’t know/remember anything about this film, think Death Note, but if it were put through a Riverdale filter (and with a pinch of Final Destination). 

Netflix Note’s Misa—or rather, Mia—is a cheerleader, and has vibes I can only describe as “true crime girly.” Mia doesn’t have much in the way of backstory, so because she doesn’t feel deeply indebted to Kira, Mia neither loves nor worships Light the way Misa tends to. She isn’t in love with Light, but wants his power for herself (this is the only version of Death Note where she doesn’t have her own notebook). And while it means that a core part of her character is gone, it does make way for a unique dynamic between her and Light: one in which Mia is more than an active accomplice to Kira, she encourages Light to kill strategically and more often.

Rather than Light seeing himself as a god and voluntarily plunging himself deeper into darkness, Mia brings the worst out of him in this version of Death Note. She’s framed as something of the true evil, or at least a far greater evil than Light—a framing that even by the most generous of interpretations, feels like an egregious misreading of not only Misa’s character, but Death Note as a whole. Even so, I won’t dwell on this because the ways in which this adaptation spits in the face of its source material is already well-trodden ground. Suffice to say, Netflix Note’s take on Mi(s)a is only a drop in an ocean of baffling creative decisions.

But if open contempt for Misa is a slider with Netflix Note at the farthest most end, then the 2015 TV drama would be at the opposite extreme. And that probably has a lot to do with it also being the only adaptation where Light doesn’t hate or look down on her; in fact, the series opens up with Light being at one of Misa’s concerts (she’s an idol, rather than a model/actress) because he, his friends, and his sister are all fans of Misa’s. This is the only version where we see him kill Misa’s parents’ murderer as well, and what’s more, he does it knowing that he’s killing the murderer of his idol’s parents. Furthermore, he tries to save Misa’s life when he finds out that her natural lifespan is nearly at its end.

tv drama Misa, happily surprised Kira is one of her fans

This all happens before Misa becomes the second Kira—let alone Light becoming aware of it. Even when she joins the fray, though, Light is never condescending toward her, nor does he seem to see her as little more than an obstacle or tool. By the end, Light sees Misa as an equal partner, trusting her with many key actions because he has faith in her. As though to prove that, she doesn’t form a new contract for her shinigami eyes after regaining her memories; Light’s not using her because he must, he’s collaborating with her because he trusts her. 

This is also the only version of Death Note where we see Misa’s backstory unfold. We witness her flashback to the moment of the crime, we see her talking to a prosecutor (Mikami) about her parent’s murderer going free, we see her begging Kira for divine punishment on a Kira support website, and of course, the moment where Light delivers his judgment. In letting the audience see all this happen, not only is Misa made to be a lot more sympathetic, but it also makes her Kira worship feel more impactful now that it’s put into context.

But while Misa is the preeminent example, she’s not the only woman of Death Note that the 2015 TV drama gives some much-needed favor to. Halle takes on a much larger role in the TV drama as a double agent working directly under L, whose actions play a pivotal role in proving that Light is Kira. And in case you were wondering: no, there’s no implication that her actions are even partially fueled because she loves Mello (who in this version, is a dormant personality within Near, often visualized by a goth Muppet). This is the only version of Death Note to really hone in on the idea that Halle must’ve been determined, and certainly accomplished, to actively oppose Kira, and in doing so, it does something that no other version of Death Note has done: it made her memorable.

Drama Misa, upset. "Then who is the law really protecting?"

It doesn’t take much to let the central women of Death Note feel more dynamic. And this is because Ohba creates solid foundations for the women of Death Note, but he never does anything with those foundations—no matter how good they have the potential to be. Instead, he shoots himself in the proverbial foot by leaving those foundations there to rot, completely untouched, unaddressed, and unexplored, all because he just doesn’t seem to care about his female characters.

Across all of his works, but especially in Death Note, Ohba’s writing consistently seeks to do little more than bully, belittle, kill, or otherwise find excuses to write out his women as quickly as possible. They exist to fall in love or be fallen in love with, and little else. In this sense, there’s a silver lining to the disproportionately large number of adaptations Death Note has relative to its comparatively young age, and it’s that these adaptations put much needed spotlights on the characters who are otherwise at the mercy of Ohba’s misogynistic writing.

As of the time of writing, there’s supposedly yet another adaptation of Death Note in the works for Netflix. And while it’s hard to feel optimistic about it, one can’t help but wonder if it’ll hold to what almost seems to be a pattern across all of the Death Note adaptations, and at least give us a fresh, more introspective take on the women of the series. I’m going to hope for the consistently cut Kiyomi or Naomi.

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